Bill Belichick will be taking notes at this weekend's NFL Scouting Combine.
As the New England Patriots—along with newly minted assistant to the coaching staff Michael Lombardi—put the finishing touches on their 2014 NFL draft evaluations at the NFL Scouting Combine, free agency and franchise tags loom before any draft picks can be selected.
A lot can change between the combine and the draft—positions of weakness can quickly become a strength and vice versa—but teams are starting to identify prospects that fit their offseason plans.
Here is a seven-round mock draft that will try and predict some players New England is likely to target at the combine and—more importantly—in May.
Note: Players were selected based on overall talent, positional need and scheme fit.
Safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas—with a little help from Richard Sherman and friends—led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory in 2013. Calvin Pryor and Devin McCourty could do the same for the New England Patriots in the near future.
Pryor can cover a deep half, play the "Rat" or "Robber" in Cover 1 and cover tight ends down the seam. He is no slouch in the running game either—Pryor is a bruising hitter. Vance Bedford—Pryor's position coach at Louisville—expounded to Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
He had three games in a row where he hit somebody and they did not finish the game. He doesn’t want to injure anybody, but he brings a certain physicality that if you’re going to throw the ball down the middle of the field, you’re going to pay a price.
That’s how the game used to be played. He did things the right way and that’s what people like about him so much. And he’s a coach on the field—high football IQ. He controls everything. Gets guys lined up. Makes the checks. He does it all. He’s a guy Louisville is going to miss next year and I wish I had him here with me at Texas right now.
Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison sees an enforcer-type safety as a need. "I really believe, if they could get that physical, hard-hitting safety ... I think that's something they need to look for," Harrison told The Dennis & Callahan Show on WEEI.
If Pryor is there at the 29th pick—which is far from a certainty—he will be an enticing option for Bill Belichick and the Patriots staff.
The production from the interior defensive linemen waned last season with Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork on injured reserve. Rookie Chris Jones was able to apply some pressure but was a liability against the run.
Whether the Patriots choose to address the defensive line through free agency or the draft, there will be some more competition.
Dominique Easley has the quickest first step that I've seen in years from a defensive tackle. He penetrates into the backfield with ease and is disruptive against the run and the pass. Due to his size—6'2" and 285 pounds—Easley projects as a pass-rush specialist to begin his career, but he could develop into a three-down option with coaching.
The biggest knock on Easley is his health. If his knees check out OK at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine—he has torn his ACL twice—he won't last past the second round.
Troy Niklas is not a small human being. Measuring in at 6'6" and 270 pounds—with 34.25" arms—he has the frame to grow into a dominant blocker in the NFL.
Niklas is a converted outside linebacker and is really only starting to scratch the surface of his ability as a receiver. He isn't an explosive route-runner, but he is very efficient. He has strong hands and a phenomenal catch radius. After the catch, Niklas looks like Rob Gronkowski. He is an absolute bear to bring down.
Adding a second "Y" tight end who can contribute in the passing game to go with Gronkowski—who knows how many games he will play in 2014?—is a must. If the New England Patriots miss out on Austin Seferian-Jenkins and C.J. Fiedorowicz in the first couple rounds, Niklas would be hard to pass on in the third.
With Ryan Wendell a free agent and Dan Connolly's cap number steadily rising, the New England Patriots should be in the market for some new blood on the offensive line.
Colorado State's Weston Richburg is the man for the job. While he isn't a household name, Richburg is seen by some as the top center—a devalued position in today's NFL—in the 2014 NFL draft.
Bucky Brooks from NFL.com passed on some tidbits from NFL scouts detailing how teams view Richburg:
Talking to several scouts this week, I've found plenty of evaluators who view Richburg as the ideal pivot as a pro. Richburg is described as a highly intelligent player with outstanding instincts and awareness. He has a terrific feel for using cut-off angles and body positioning to neutralize defenders at the point of attack. Additionally, Richburg does a great job of minimizing his strength and power deficiencies by effectively using body help from his teammates to reduce available space for defenders.
Richburg is at home at center, but he also has some experience at guard. That versatility certainly won't hurt him in Bill Belichick's eyes.
If Wendell isn't re-signed, the Patriots could certainly do a lot worse than Richburg.
The New England Patriots don't have any fifth-round selections due to the Isaac Sopoaga trade, but I could see them packaging their two sixth-round picks—one acquired in the Sopoaga trade—to move up and get a player who is tumbling down the board.
Perhaps nobody in the draft has fallen more this season than former Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla.
Due to multiple issues away from the football field—you can read all about them from Jeff Risdon of DetroitLionsDraft.com—Lyerla's transcendent talent has been overshadowed.
Lyerla has the speed, power, hands, elusiveness and nearly any other trait you could want for a "Move" tight end. If the Patriots are willing to take a small risk—we're talking about a fifth-round pick here—they could really hit a goldmine.
Adding Lyerla and Niklas to a team with a healthy Rob Gronkowski just doesn't seem fair.
Bill Belichick has never shied away from taking fliers on relatively unknown prospects in the later rounds of the draft. Matt Cassel, Julian Edelman and Nate Ebner—just to name a few—quickly come to mind.
Tyler Starr is a player who I had never heard of before his performance at the Shrine Game but will burst onto the national scene at the combine.
Doug Kyed from NESN.com was the first to make the Starr-to-Patriots connection:
Head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots put a lot of value in the three-cone drill, and Starr could break the combine record, according to CBSSports.com. Starr recently was clocked at 6.29 seconds in the three-cone drill. Last year’s best mark was Utah cornerback Will Davis’ 6.52. The best recent mark was Oregon wide receiver Jeff Maehl’s 6.42 in 2011.
Starr has the right size for a Patriots outside linebacker, too. Belichick typically likes linebackers who are taller than 6-foot-1 and more than 240 pounds (for pass rushers, 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds). Starr is 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and played outside linebacker and defensive end at South Dakota. He has experience rushing the passer and dropping back into coverage.
Starr projects as an outside linebacker at the NFL level.
With a seventh-round pick, you might as well swing for the fences. If Starr develops into a player, Belichick will look like a genius.
Follow James Christensen on Twitter @NEPatriotsDraft for more Patriots and NFL Draft analysis.